ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Houston Astros manager AJ Hinch asked ace Justin Verlander to do something he had never done before. It might be a while before he asks him to do it again, not that he has any regrets.
Verlander was chased after 3 2/3 innings in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday. He allowed four runs — three in the first inning — and seven hits, including two home runs. The Astros trailed 4-0 when he was pulled from the game after walking Tampa Bay’s Ji-Man Choi in the fourth, much to the delight of a raucous, jam-packed Tropicana Field. Verlander threw 84 pitches.
“Obviously not the way you would script it,” Verlander said. “It sucks.”
The Rays went on to win 4-1 to force a decisive fifth game at Minute Maid Park in Houston on Thursday.
With the Astros’ lead in the series down to 2-1 entering Tuesday, Hinch tabbed Verlander, 36, for the Game 4 start after the Astros’ 10-3 loss in Game 3 on Monday. That meant Verlander was starting on three days’ rest, something he’d never done on the heels of a full-length start in his illustrious career. Verlander threw seven shutout innings against the Rays in Game 1 on Friday in Houston.
“In the postseason, you ask somebody to do something that’s not normal, it’s always a little nerve-wracking,” Hinch said. “But he felt great, and he made a lot of really good pitches and got a lot of swings and misses.”
The Rays jumped on Verlander from the outset Tuesday. Tommy Pham, Tampa Bay’s second batter in the game, homered to left field to open the scoring. The Rays tacked on two more runs that first inning, and Verlander needed 32 pitches to escape further damage. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that was the most pitches Verlander had thrown in a first inning since he joined the Astros in 2017.
“Bad slider. Inconsistent control,” Verlander said. “I felt like the velocity was there, but the control wasn’t and the slider wasn’t. Mix that in with a good approach [from the Rays] in the first.”
In his final inning, Verlander gave up a solo homer to Willy Adames on a slider that broke into the middle of the plate, waist-high. The walk to Choi was a fitting end to an outing in which Verlander struggled to locate his pitches. Verlander threw strikes on just half of his 50 four-seam fastballs, according to Statcast data.
With his fastball missing the strike zone, the Rays teed off on Verlander’s off-speed pitches. The Rays were 6-for-12 against Verlander’s off-speed offerings, with two homers, two doubles and seven hard-hit balls. But for all his struggles, Verlander steadfastly refused to point to his short rest as an excuse.
“I didn’t know what to expect, and I wasn’t taking anything into it,” Verlander said. “Not expecting anything. I was expecting to be normal. The low-hanging fruit is to sit there and say this was short rest and that’s the reason why. I don’t think so. I felt good, body felt good physically. I just didn’t execute the way I needed to.
“Really the slider was the worst it’s been all year. I needed something to go our way, and when I made mistakes, they really capitalized on them with runners on base. It killed us.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash thought the real factor in the quick turnaround from his club’s last encounter with Verlander was a heightened familiarity, more so than Verlander’s physical state.
“I think the familiarity helps,” Cash said. “He’s still the best. There’s no denying that. But four days, five days later, some of those same pitches maybe replayed a little bit, and we were able to have some quality [at-bats] and hit the ball hard.”
Whether the short rest plan played into Verlander’s off night, the Astros still have a couple of warm security blankets to keep them warm on their flight back to Houston: a partisan crowd at their home park and the presence of Game 5 starter Gerrit Cole, who hasn’t lost a start since May 22, a string of starts that reached 23 with his win in Game 2.
“It’s good,” Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said about having Cole slotted to start Thursday. “Like today, it meant a lot to have Justin out there. If I have to do it again, I’d put Justin out there, because he’s our boy with Gerrit. That’s the way we play. We’re going go home and have Gerrit on the mound, and [we will] do everything we can to win.”